We left Tana in the Landrover – all smartly dressed, jackets, ties, floaty dresses – seemingly more appropriate for a day at Henley than a day out in a Malagasy village. Brian Donaldson the ‘patron’ of MDF and chairman of the grants committee at Kitchen Table Charities Trust, Nicole the Director General of MDF, Roy and I.
We drove through the sprawling suburbs, past the strings of sausages and hunks of fatty meat on wooden meat stalls open on the dirty street, and local fruit markets. On we drove, past slow moving zebu with their humps flopping over, hauling carts over laden with goods, men running along with bare feet hauling even greater loads and dodging the oncoming traffic. Two little girls in filthy dresses playing in an open sewer alongside the busy dusty road and a small boy with bare feet carrying a car battery seemed to best exemplify the extraordinary poverty that this lush, verdant beautiful country has been plagued with due to a Govt that really doesn’t seem to care about the day to day lives of its citizens and the international community who have turned their back on the country as a whole due to the fact that the Govt installed themselves after a violent coup.
The tarmac road ran out, the rain started; a persistent grey drizzle, and a brick road took us a little way through streets lined with eucalypt and poinsettia to the point where even the brick stopped and a rutted orange dirt track wound up through the hills to the north east of the city. At some points the track seemed impassable with vast water gullys and high rocks and ridges but Brian’s trusty Landrover surged on and a little later caught up with a tiny grubby little 2cv which had driven the same road, and a blue mini bus with the cream of the nation’s media (2 blokes, 2 girls and one very small handy cam).
We clung to the edge of the steep terraced hillsides looking out across rice fields and forests, the Malagasy houses rose up often two stories made of mud with one window. Dark inside and roofed with grass, jaunty washing lines full of clothes hung over dirt yards with chickens scratching around beneath them. Finally after a particularly perilous bit of track we rounded the corner and saw flocks of people walking down the hill away from us towards a tiny bridge over a very small river.
We parked the Landy by the side of the track and headed in the rain down the muddy orange hill listening to the local band (5 men playing pipes made of bits of tubes and banging a drum made from the hide of a zebu). By now the rain was flooding down the hillside and I have never felt more ‘colonial’ than at that moment, in my floaty frock with a brightly striped umbrella being held over me in the pouring rain following a former Ambassador in his blue blazer. We headed down, in procession, to a tiny concrete bridge over a small stream. There was a bamboo and leaf arch built over the middle of it with a white, green and red ribbon (colours of the Madagascar flag) waiting to be cut. The villagers flocked down and the cheery band played on through the wind and rain and a man in a very spectacularly shiny suit (who turned out to be the man from the Ministry) strode ahead, the local priest in his white robes and the regional and local chiefs all greeted each other. The man from the Ministry and Brian cut the ribbon and then distributed pieces to each of us – the TV cameras rolled (small handicam) and the paparazzi (3 people with old digital cameras) snapped away and that was it – bridge officially open.

Ambohitrakely new bridge is open

The bridge had to be built in order to get supplies and building materials to the village to build the primary school. Ambohitrakely is a tiny village, red mud houses seem to blend with the orange red soil, thatched with grass they are very attractive from the outside though dark, tiny and claustrophobic inside (no electricity, water, furniture – just a sleeping mat and perhaps some cooking pots).

Another arch with the name of the village suspended beneath it stood proudly infront of a clearing which was soon filled with official white land rovers, range rovers and other 4x4s as the Men from the Ministry, the Chef CISCO, regional head and so on all filed in. The village head, a cheerful skinny chap in a longish coat, looked as if he had left his zebu in the field to attend the inauguration. Etienne the local advisor was a cheery soul with a good command of English – it was he who had originally shown the forsight to apply to MDF for the grant which made the school and the bridge a possibility. After much milling around and hand shaking the headmistress, a lovely short haired lady in a very lovely dress and a surprising pair of heals, presented us all with traditional Malagasy hats; made from local raffia each had a pink ribbon pinned around the brim. Graciously we all accepted, and then, motley crew as we were, we made our way down the red muddy path to the makeshift shelter and podium where the dignitaries were to sit to watch the speeches – again it felt all a little pompous as we sat and looked down through at first the drizzle, then howling wind and dust and finally very hot sun, at the rows and rows of school children in white tops of varying sorts but with no shoes standing patiently awaiting their time to perform.

The children stood on a patch of red ‘yard’ infront of a low building –the new school and classrooms. No glass in most of the windows, but a solid roof and a door on each and inside you could just make out the new wooden desks and benches. The excitement and pride in having a village school was incredible.

The speeches meanwhile seemed interminable – each dignitary – starting with the Chef du Village spoke for about 20 minutes, Brian’s speech (translated from French to Malagasy by Nicole) was about 9th, and the only one to raise cheers and smiles … by this stage I was having huge fun playing eye contact games with two little girls in the front row who were clearly as bored as I was by all the speeches but giggled each time I smiled at them.

After the speeches, the children sang and danced, the sun now out, they looked so dazzling in their grubby white tops against the red dirt ground. My two smiling friends kept on giggling and when I waved at them at the end of the dance they hugged each other! The children were around 7 – 10 years old, so perfectly and rigidly behaved, they never sat down, they never missed a step through the whole performance – all in time and all with huge grins on their faces it was wonderful. The entire event watched by swelling crowds of villagers of all ages, mothers with babies on their backs, old men standing back in the shade, teenage boys looking sullen but fascinated by the whole event – and everyone wearing the most odd array of clothes; wolly hats, baseball caps, little girls in old fairy costumes, even a Ralf Lauren polo shirt … it seems that this is the kind of place many of the clothes that we ‘recycle’ in supermarket recycling bins end up – every item cherished and worn until it disintegrates.

The ribbon then had to be cut at the school door – the Minister in the gloriously shiny suit had the honour this time and handed out his bits of ribbon. He used a pair of scissors held by a little girl with huge pridel on a pink gleaming nylon pillow with frills round the edge. We all piled into the dark classroom; the blackboard had ‘Thank you to KTCT and MDF’ written across it and all the hand made wooden desks stood, like unvarnished IKEA furniture but more robust with their built in benches behind them. On the walls a hand drawn complex map of the human digestive system and the breakdown of the French verb ‘faire’ – no computers, no paints, no equipment. These children have exercise books and pencils and sometimes biros and that’s about it – but the writing in the books was beautiful cursive and precise – not like the average UK 8 year old.

Outside, the dancing continued, older women waving hats and the rest of the village joining in. Sadly, at this point we were ushered into another classroom with an earth floor and no glass in the windows. Long tressel tables with big bottles of coke, Fanta and Club Soda, little plastic cups and plates of grated carrot salad – this was the dignitaries’ banquet. I sat next to the man from the Ministry – he spoke French and was excited to have donated a pack of crayons and pens to each child in the school. The second course was rather more frightening – zebu stew. Now zebu steak is wonderful; tender, juicy and succulent with a rich flavour – but the stew seemed to consist of the rest of the zebu once the meat had been removed. Opaque lumps of gristle, parts of spine bone and random gelatinous bits of cartelidge sat quivering on the dish with a few hairs proudly announcing themselves like greasy spiders legs. I was suddenly a vegetarian – but Roy kept our side up, and he the Malagasy members of the party attacked the dish with gusto sucking and slurping while I ate the red rice that was meant to sop up the juices.

Pudding was a banana. During the feast the local women performed a spectacular dance for us, leaping, stomping and apparently praising us for coming from England to their community it was a giddy exciting dance – each of us in turn had to get up and ‘dance’ up to them and hand them money (about £1 in my case as I only had a few Arry Arry’s with me – I love that there is a currency called the Arry Arry!!!).

Dinner over we wandered in and out of the three classrooms admiring the blackboards and also thanking the cooks who had prepared the hairy zebu stew in huge cooking pots stood on large stones on the floor in the classroom next door and were happily finishing off all the left overs. My two smiling little friends stood watching everything I did and I beckoned them over and took their picture and gave them a boiled sweet each (from the airoplane and in the bottom of Roy’s pocket) and after that they followd me everywhere producing various smaller siblings and pushing them forward for inspection – such an odd thing to be held in some kind of awe by children and for me, not something I was comfortable with, I just wanted to take my shoes off and run and play with them.

me and the giggling girls

Children swarmed around us, many amazed seeing their picture for the first time gasping in amazement then hiding in fits of laughter before reappearing with other friends to be photographed again. One little boy was playing horsey with a stick, riding around and around his friends, and another was drawing in the red dirt with a small stone – most had never had toys of their own.

A group of dancers pushed two small boys to the front of the circle and they started doing the most miraculous acrobatics, little children wriggled through the throng and everyone cheered and shouted.

Finally, as the villagers trickled away and the dancing ended, we all piled back into our land rovers and fancy white cars and left the village, which apparently produces 30 tons of garlic a year and 100 tons of rice, to calm down and return to its normal peace. No electricity there and no running water – they have to fetch that from the stream nearby. The new bridge has opened up the possibility of selling more produce and bringing much needed income into the village.

It was a really humbling privilege to be there for such a momentous day – to realise how very little sums of money can do so much for people. The national TV carried two long sections on the inauguration the next day – me standing like a floaty dressed bemused person in the background while Brian Donaldson explained that I was hoping to raise more money for communities such as these to have more schools or fresh water or bridges by using the internet to raise awareness of what life was like for such a huge number of people.

These children of Ambohitrakely now have the chance of an education in their own community – previously they walked over 2 hours each way to the nearest village with a school (no shoes, rainy season, hot hot summers – not good) but now their school is on the doorstep giving them a real new beginning thanks to small grants and organisations like the Kitchen Table Charities Trust and Madagascar Development Fund.

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Blog entry and photographs (c) copyright Ellie Stoneley 2010 All Rights Reserved